Calvinian Thomism: Providence, Conservation and Concurrence in the Thought of John Calvin

Mar 13th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts, Featured Articles

It is quite difficult to distinguish God’s actions from those of his creatures. Some think that God does everything; others imagine that he only conserves the force he has given to created things. How far can we say either of these opinions is right? – Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics VIII


A godly man will not overlook the secondary causes. And indeed, he will not, just because he thinks those from whom he has received benefit are ministers of the divine goodness, pass them over, as if they had deserved no thanks for their human kindness. – Calvin, Institutes I.17.9

Calvin the Philosopher

Among the most impressive displays of Calvin’s philosophical ingenuity are those we discover in his treatises against the Libertines (on the one side) and the Epicureans (on the other).[1] Indeed, after reading these through and reflecting a bit on the subtlety and intuitive sensitivity of Calvin’s philosophical theorizing, it’s hard to take him too seriously when he repeatedly avers – out of either humility or dismissiveness or both – that he doesn’t much bother his head about “the minutiae of Aristotle.” (Sure he does.) And, perhaps not coincidently, it is precisely in this context that Calvin’s thought takes on its most Thomistic hue.

The Epicureans and the Libertines were many-headed critters, but for our purposes they represent the Scylla of deism[2] and the Charybdis of occasionalism[3] respectively. That is, for Calvin the distinctive doctrines of these schools exemplified two inversely opposed errors, neither of which could be maintained without blasphemy: viz., the error of viewing God as a blissfully uninvolved (and more or less otiose) “watchtower” deity on the one side, or, alternatively, that of making Him out as the Sole Agent in a world that was, at bottom, evidently indistinguishable from God Himself.

In effect, for Calvin they were just versions of atheism and pantheism, clad scantly in diaphanous theistic veneer. He didn’t like them. So he labored to carve out a via media between these twin heresies, even as he engaged in full frontal warfare with the both of them at once. Happily, the result was (i) a few Libertine lacerations and Epicurean ecchymoses, and (ii) a vigorous Calvinian defense of St Thomas’ theory of providence, conservation and concurrence.

Here I’ll briefly describe the threat occasioned by the Libertines in particular and indicate Calvin’s reaction to this threat; I’ll then follow up with a presentation of Calvin’s corrective as compared with the corrective formulated by the Angelic Doctor. (That’s Catholic code for Aquinas.)

Why the Libertines were Fantastic and Furious

So far as Calvin was concerned, the Epicurean fad sweeping through Renaissance Europe was nothing more interesting than a thinly veiled version of naturalism – more attractive, perhaps, because it made room for a “God,” but more dangerous in fact because the “God” it invoked didn’t much make a difference. He was an initiating principle of the universe only, a force that “bestowed motion on this immense machine” (as Hume aptly put it)[4] and left it thereafter to run under its own steam. He may as well have wandered off or popped out of existence after He got things chugging. And to a theologian who thought even the distinction between God’s active and permissive wills was too much a compromise of divine omnipotence, it would have been the most natural thing in the world for Calvin to swing wildly toward the opposite end of the spectrum and deny any independence to any aspect of the created order whatever.

It’s a credit to his restraint that he didn’t do that. Calvin knew that “many an error is taken up by going too far from other men’s faults,” as Baxter memorably said,[5] and it’s no empty compliment to note that he had a good sense in this case as to how that adage should be applied. For consider: no less a thinker than Jonathan Edwards, who was otherwise much more philosophically inclined, lost the Calvinian sense of balance on this crucial point.[6]

Thus we see Edwards’ admirable rejection of deism (together with his characteristically eloquent insistence on the primacy of the divine will) terminate in a thesis that ruled out the possibility of anything causing anything else to happen, unless the thing in question happened to be God. For if God is causing the world and everything in it to exist from moment to moment (he reasoned), then nothing else could be causally responsible for the world or any of the stuff going on inside it.

The thrust of the thing is simple: Divine causation must exclude all other potential causes, otherwise we’re implying that (a) the divine will cannot get the job done on its own, or that (b) the universe is in some sense self-sufficient. But both (a) and (b) are false: the universe is continually dependent upon God, and God’s will is quite powerful enough to bring about any effect on its own. And from this it follows that every event occurring in the world, from the leaf’s turning brown to my typing out ‘brown’, is brought about directly by God and by nothing else at all.[7]

In a way I sort of admire this view. It’s whole-hog. But there are insurmountable problems with it. For example, it follows from this view that (i) individual humans can never act freely, and, indeed, can never perform any actions at all, and so cannot ever be morally responsible for anything they “do.” This is so because nobody but God causes anything to happen – which means that you never cause your body to move, or your mind to think, or whatever. Yet you’ve got to be able to do those things if you’re ever to do anything. Since you can’t, however: no free will for you, no moral responsibility for you – in fact, no “doing” anything for you, no human agency period.[8]

It follows from this, too, that (ii) all evil in the world traces immediately and exclusively back to God, with no “buffer-zone” holding between God Himself and the moral evil brought into the world (allegedly) by human beings. In other words, it makes God responsible for sin and evil in the strongest sense possible – a sense which conflicts with God’s essential goodness and beneficence – while it simultaneously exculpates human beings from wrongdoing entirely.

And finally, (iii) it looks to inch its way over to Spinoza’s outlook: once we say that God is the only thing with a will, the only thing that ever does anything, the only thing that ever makes anything happen – then it’s a short step to the conclusion that God is in fact the only thing that exists, and that everything else is just an aspect (or ‘mode’) of God. [9] You can call that pantheism, or panentheism, or Spinozism. You can even make up your own name for it, if you want. But whatever you call it, it ain’t Christian by a football field.

Now those, (i)-(iii), are pretty good reasons for concluding that Edwards’ theory of conservation and providence is wrong, wrong in a biggish way.[10] And these pretty good reasons are (mirabile dictu!) exactly the same reasons Calvin provides for rejecting the Libertine view wholesale. Take a glance at Calvin’s surgical knife in action:

Instead of our souls [the Libertines] say that it is God who lives in us, who gives strength to our bodies, who supports all those actions in us that pertain to life. [And from this they infer] that there is only one divine spirit that exists and indwells every creature. In saying this they eradicate the essence and nature of both human souls and angels.

Again, the Libertines maintain that

“in Him we live and have our being,” by virtue of which we are rightly called “His offspring” (Acts 17:28). But this does not mean that God is the spiritual nature that indwells man. True, we subsist in Him, insofar as we do not have our foundation in ourselves. But there is a vast difference between being the “work” and the “worker” himself.

And again:

“both Scripture and nature teach us that the eternal Spirit of God is the source and origin of everything.” This we readily concede. But it does not follow from this that He did not give each creature a unique being and substance. It is quite another thing to say that every creature comes from God and that what God has created is God Himself.

Notice that in each case the Libertines affirm something we Christians “readily concede.” But once we “consider the inference[s] that can be deduced from this wretched sect’s general articles of faith,” what we find is that their philosophical presuppositions (not their theological affirmations) lead them from half-truths to heresies.

To put the moral another way: their “‘valid argument’, by means of which they so confuse everything that they change God into a creature and do away with the human soul,” does not follow from the world’s dependence upon God, nor upon God’s providential governance alone. Those things we can accept. Rather, it follows from these things only when we assume in addition that what God does nothing else can also do, that what God causes nothing else may also cause. And the result of this mistake, according to John Calvin, is precisely our (i) through (iii) above:

After creating a single spirit among themselves, by means of which they destroy the nature of both the angels of heaven and the devils of hell, as well as human souls, the Libertines maintain that this single spirit constitutes everything. By this they do not mean what the Scripture means when it says that at the same time all creatures subsist in Him, are equally guided by Him, are subject to His providence, and serve His will, each according to its order. But they mean that everything in the world must be seen directly as His doing.

In making this claim they attribute nothing to the will of man, no more than if he were a stone. And they cast aside every distinction between good and evil, since nothing can be badly made in their view, seeing that God is its author.

If you concede this point, then we must either attribute sin to God or dissolve the world of sin, inasmuch as God does everything. Thus, any distinction between good and evil is eliminated.[11]

Calvinian Thomism: How to be a Godly Man

If that’s the mistake, what’s the corrective? Calvin’s antidote to the Libertine error can be found, already fully developed, within the pages of St Thomas’ Summa Theologiae (see e.g. I.19.5, 8 and I.22.1-4), and may be summed up in this way:

God has immediate providence over everything, because He has in His intellect the types of everything, even the smallest; and whatsoever causes He assigns to certain effects, He gives them the power to produce those effects [Thus,] there are certain intermediaries of God’s providence; for He governs things inferior by superior, not on account of any defect in His power, but by reason of the abundance of His goodness; so that the dignity of causality is imparted even to creatures. (ST I.22.3, respondeo)

The basic idea is that both Epicurean deism and Libertine occasionalism are wrong. God governs the natural order generally in a law-like way, and every particular event within it is likewise under His direct providential control; but this does not eliminate the reality of secondary, natural causes also making things happen, nor does it override or undermine the actions human beings undertake as a result of their own wills: “God’s immediate provision over everything does not exclude the action of secondary causes; which are the executors of His order” (ST I.22.3, rep. obj. 2). And again: “since the very act of free will is traced to God as a cause, it necessarily follows that everything happening from the exercise of free will is subject to divine providence. For human providence is included under the providence of God, as a particular under a universal cause” (ST I.22.2, rep. obj. 4).

For both Aquinas and for Calvin, then, providence and natural causation are not in conflict but in concord: natural events cause other natural events to happen, but not without God’s will concurring; and God directs the wills and hearts of men, but not without their voluntary concurrence. So Calvin:

For our part we do not deny that whatever comes to pass does so by the will of God. In fact when we explain why He is called all powerful, we attribute to Him a power active in all creatures, teaching that, having created the world, He also governs it, always keeping His hand in the work in order to maintain everything in its true state and to dispose of things as it seems best to Him…

… [Now] there is a universal operation by which He guides all creatures according to the condition and propriety which He had given each when He made them. This guidance is nothing other than what we call “the order of nature” … Nevertheless, this universal operation of God’s does not prevent each creature, heavenly or earthly, from having and retaining its own quality and nature and from following its own inclination…

… [Thus] we must observe that creatures here below do their works in accordance with their capacity, being judged good or evil based on whether they act in obedience to God or trespass against Him. Nonetheless, God is over all and directs things toward a good end and turns evil into good.[12]

In other words, you get universal divine governance, providence over each particular event, providence even over the free decisions of human beings – and you get it all without sacrificing secondary causes or making God the author of evil.

Nice Thomistic/Calvinian package.[13]

Soteriological Implications?

But buyer beware. The package comes with a price, and the price is that you’ve got to believe in concurrence. You have to believe, that is, that when God causes something to happen, that doesn’t entail that we creatures cannot make it happen as well. It means, in other words, that you’ve got to accept the full compatibility of divine and human cooperation regarding (a) what God chooses to work in and through us, and (b) what we do – really and freely do – by actively concurring with the divine will.

And it could be that some unexpected soteriological possibilities open up when you accept that. For between (Epicurean) Pelagianism and (Libertine) Monergism lies Calvinian Thomism: divine and human concurrence. And what Calvin rightly insists upon regarding providence and nature, the Catholic insists upon regarding nature and grace.

Thus for example, when Win Corduan contends (in his arguments against Catholicism) that “if God does it, it is grace; if we do it, it is not grace; calling something that we do God’s grace is not God’s grace”[14] – when Corduan says this, he isn’t just saying something that butts up against Aquinas. He’s relying upon the same philosophical presuppositions that led the Libertines from half-truths to heresies – the very presuppositions that Calvin was at pains to reject.

The interesting question, then, is whether there is any principled way for the Calvinist to (a) reject those philosophical presuppositions when we need to avoid Epicurean and Libertine errors, but (b) hang onto them when we want to argue against the Catholic Church.

[1] See Against the Fantastic and Furious Sect of the Libertines and the Institutes I.16.3-5, 7-8; I.17.1-5, 9; II.4.5-7.

[2] Deism affirms the existence of a creator but denies the continuing dependence of the world upon the creator; God does not “sustain” or “conserve” the world on this view, because the world is self-supporting.

[3] Occasionalism affirms that God sustains the world and governs everything that happens within it; it denies the reality of secondary causation, or any natural causes distinct from God’s immediate will.

[4] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding VIII.

[5] Richard Baxter, Church Divisions, pp. 224-225, quoted in Iain Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, Banner of Truth (2000), p. 299.

[6] It must of course be admitted that Calvin’s emphases varied with polemical context, though such variations need not amount to inconsistency. On this point Susan Schreiner, in The Theater of His Glory: Nature & the Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin, Baker (1991), p. 19, strikes the appropriate cautionary note:

Against both the Stoics and the Libertines Calvin defended God’s transcendence over the realm of creation and insisted that God must not be entangled in the inferior course of his works. In Calvin’s view, providence must not be identified with the “stream of nature” nor with a single divine Spirit which works in all things. Basically pantheistic, both groups fell into a false determinism which resulted in the doctrine of fate and the idea that human beings are not responsible for evil, since nature, God, or the Spirit effected all things. When confronted by the implications of such determinism, Calvin defended the integrity and activity of the created order which included the human will as well as the secondary causes. Calvin works here with the idea of concursus; in his polemics against the Libertines he claimed the activity of the finite agent but insisted on the positive presence of the divine willing in all acts or events … Any acquittal of the charge of fatalism in the Reformer’s thought, however, must take seriously the discussions found in [Calvin’s] arguments directed against the “Epicurean” error.

[7] For the actual arguments Edwards gives for this position, see his “The Great Doctrine of Original Sin Defended,” in J. Smith et al. eds, A Jonathan Edwards Reader, Yale University Press (1995), and compare Paul Helm, Faith and Understanding, Eerdmans (1997), chap 7. See also Tim Troutman’s discussion of Edwards in “Soli Deo Gloria: A Catholic Perspective,” and note the similarity between Edwards’ reasoning here and the reasoning behind the notion that the glory of God decreases proportionately as His glory “goes to” creatures.

[8] It should be noted that the incompatibility of Edwards’ view of divine conservation/providence and human freedom/responsibility does not rely on an analysis of freedom that Edwards (or Calvinists generally) would find contentious. It relies, rather, on Edwards’ own theory of freedom as set forth in his Freedom of the Will, which (in contradiction with his occasionalism) specifies causation by the agent’s will as a necessary condition for free and morally responsible action. So the worry here isn’t just that God determines everything, it’s that God does everything, and nobody else ever gets to play. Cf. my “Theological Determinism and the Problem of Evil,” Religious Studies 44 (2008), pp. 165-184 and Helm, Faith and Understanding, pp. 174-175.

[9] See Book I of The Ethics.

[10] I pass over in silence the further implication that human beings (like other created objects) cannot exist for more than an instant before promptly popping out of existence again – an implication with which, in contrast with the others, Edwards was quite content. Indeed, the whole point of Edwards’ argumentation was to establish that (a) you-right-now aren’t the same person as you-just-a-second-ago; that (b) you-right-now are nevertheless morally responsible for whatever you-just-a-second-ago might have done just a second ago; and that (c) there’s therefore no reason to object to your being held morally responsible for something that Adam did, despite the fact that you (at-any-time) aren’t identical to Adam (-at-any-time). The common reaction to this ingenious defense of original sin is that Edwards hasn’t succeeded in making original sin easier to grasp, so much as he’s made any kind of moral responsibility impossible to swallow.

[11] Against the Libertines [On the First Article of Libertine Doctrine and On the Libertine View that a Spirit Comprises Everything], my emphases.

[12] Against the Libertines [On How We Ought to Understand the Providence of God].

[13] I can’t resist referencing Barth’s interesting perception of a link between Calvin-the-theoretician and Calvin-the-colorful-personality on exactly this point:

In the later editions of the Institutes, in remarkable parallelism with Thomas Aquinas, Calvin developed the distinctive theory that divine providence constantly uses secondary causes, including the human will, to achieve its ends. Though he avoided mechanistic thinking, Calvin viewed the decisions of the will, whether his own or that of others, as guided, driven, and motivated by God, to whom we must constantly pay inner heed and whom we must always be ready to follow, so that we do not so much as lift a finger without a nod from him (Rom. 14 [v. 5]). Ideas of this kind – and his actual conduct both here and in many other cases was in keeping with them – show us that Calvin was not so strictly doctrinaire as we often like to depict him, but that in daily life he would constantly decide and act in accordance with the situation, which included his own shall we say volatile disposition, naturally within definite ethical limits, yet in detail with an extraordinary and incalculable freedom that we today – who knows? – might regard as romantic caprice, but that for him had the significance of supreme divine necessity.

Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin, trans. G.W. Bromiley, Eerdmans (1922/1995), pp. 376-377.

[14] Will Corduan, “As the Romans Do.” Thanks to Bryan Cross for calling this pithy quotation to my attention. Readers interested in pursuing the topic of divine/human “cooperation” in relation to original sin on the one hand and the process of sanctification on the other (i.e., before and after regeneration) should know that we plan to take these topics up in detail in the near future, and we look forward to the fruitful interaction we hope them to engender.

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  1. I was always intrigued by this part of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

    “I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass;[1] yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin,[2] nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.[3]”

    I have since realized that much of this quote’s greatness is its connection to St. Thomas.

  2. Dear Neal,

    Thank you for this post. You have provoked much thought in my mind.

    I would like to hear a little more about the claimed divide between Edwards and Calvin. You said in a footnote that “the incompatibility of Edwards’ view of divine conservation/providence and human freedom/responsibility does not rely on an analysis of freedom that Edwards (or Calvinists generally) would find contentious.” From a Reformed posture, Edwards did not seem contentious to me. So I was surprised to read that Edwards and Calvin were opposed (or at least not in accord) on what sounds to me like monocausalism.

    I have always understood that the WCF portion given by Jonathan Deane above represented the Calvinist position. But then I thought, this qualification for “mystery” aside, that Calvin believed what you describe as Edwards’ view (“Divine causation must exclude all other potential causes”). Perhaps I (and Edwards?) just took it as the natural conclusion of Calvin’s predestinarian doctrines?

    So I wonder if you could tell me how you believe Edwards would have responded to the critique you levy. Would he have said “Calvin agrees with me?” “Monocausalism does not lead to your (i) (ii) and (iii) because of x, y, and z?” Edwards is something of a powerhouse, so it seems that there must be some defenses in the offing before he can be dismissed.

    Peace in Christ,

  3. Neal,

    Very interesting essay, thanks for the hard work.


  4. Hi, Tom.

    There is a subtle difference here, which perhaps I failed to communicate. Edwards is a Calvinist, to be sure, as regards predestination, election, divine sovereinty, and the like. If we confine ourselves to these soteriological distinctives he is thoroughly “Cavlinist.” If, however, you take the quotation from the WCF — the one that specifies that there is secondary causation in nature, and that God’s active will/providence does not exlude such secondary causes — if you take that to be part of “Calvinism” as well, then Edwards is not a Calvinist on this particular point.

    Where Edwards did not seem contentious to you from a Reformed perspective is probably on the soteriology, and perhaps also on his theory of human freedom. In Freedom of the Will, which is his treatise on the nature of freedom and moral responsibility, Edwards presents a ‘compatibilist’ position which is very similar to what we find in Locke, Hume, Hobbes, and some of the other moderns. In a nutshell, they argued that free will is compatible with causal determinism (psychological determinism, theological determinism, etc.), because what free will requires, and what suffices for free action, is the action’s detemination by the will. So as long as your act is caused in the normal way by your will, and there are no external impediments disallowing you to do what you will to do, then you act freely, or voluntarily.

    This is just a basic outline of the theory, you understand. But here too, Edwards says nothing that is inconsistent with a Calvinist outlook. Many (perhaps most) Calvinists are compatibillists like Edwards, and at the very least they are compatibilists about divine predestination (to salvation) and freedom/responsibility.

    However, the question of God’s providential rule over the world, and its compatibility or incompatibility with secondary causation (or natural causes also occuring in the world), is a distinct issue from the above. It isn’t “monocausalism” exactly, as Cross defines that term. It’s occasionalism, the view that everything that happens in the universe is directly and exclusively (solely) caused by God, and nothing else. In other words, the build up of ice doesn’t cause the limb to fall, and the falling of the limb doesn’t cause the car’s window to get smashed: all of these events just provide ‘occasions’ for God to directly cause the limb to fall down, and then (when He sees the limb make contact with the car) directly cause the window to shatter. This kind of view is thus inconsistent with what Calvin says against the Libertines, and also inconsistent with what the WCF says about God not doing violence to but “establishing” secondary causes.

    So, putting it all together: we’re not merely talking about predestination or ‘monergism’ in justification here; we also aren’t just talking about free will and determinism. We are talking about something more fundamental: does anything in the world ever cause anything else in the world to happen? Do I myself ever perform (freely or otherwise) any actions at all? Or does God do absolutely everything, leaving no room for anything else to make a causal difference. Calvin (and Thomas) says “No, there are secondary causes.” They hold to concurrentism, not occasionalism. Edwards says “Yes, God’s will rules out all other causes.” He holds to occasionalism, which the Libertines also upheld and which Calvin vigorously rejects.

    The footnote about the incompatibility of occasionalism and freedom/responsibility points to the fact that Edwards’ views about divine conservation, and his occasionalism specifically, is logically incompatible with his theory of free will, for this reason: for us to act freely, according to Edwards, our actions must be caused (in the right way) by our wills. However, as he explains elsewhere, only God’s will causes anything, our own wills are inert. Thus, on Edwards’ view of freedom, we cannot have freedom or moral responsibility.

    Does that clear things up a bit? (Hopefully?) Edwards is indeed a powerhouse, and I’m not dismissing him. I like him. But on this point he’s in trouble, as Reformed philosophers (such as Helm) also perceive.



  5. Neal,

    It does help, thank you. I see the ‘more fundamental’ matter you are describing better now.

    I still wonder, how would Edwards respond? Would he say, ‘yes, I suppose you’re right that Calvin and I agree on one level, but have a fundamental disagreement at a deeper level’? Or would he say ‘no, Calvin and I actually agree for this or that reason…’? I’m asking you to speculate, I suppose. Maybe that’s not fair.

    Then I continue to fail to grasp in what way Calvin would have seen himself differing from Aquinas on causation and predestination. That Calvin and Edwards differed here makes my confusion all the stronger. I know the answer is something like “double predestination,” but if Calvin and Aquinas agree with each other on primary and secondary causes, they seem awfully close. Maybe I have a hard time seeing how Calvin went about agreeing with Aquinas on secondary causes, yet disagreeing on the conclusion about predestination of the reprobate.

    Peace in Christ,

  6. Tom,

    These are great questions. The first, I think, is easier to answer than the second, at least in the sense that different people have slightly different takes on Aquinas (on this point). Unfortunately I will have to get back to you later this evening on these – my two middle kids (Aidan and Evelyn) have a birthday party from 10-1 today, and directly after that I’ve got to get up to school for the rest of OU’s epistemology conference. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can after that. For the time being, if any of our resident St Thomas experts want to take a crack at the second one, please feel free!

  7. This is a bit tangential, but: “God governs the natural order generally in a law-like way” I don’t know enough Calvin to know if this statement is true of Calvin, but I don’t think St. Thomas is talking about efficient causes in that passage. I think he’s talking about final causation. The Empyrean is moved by love of God, but the lesser creatures are (generally) moved by an indirect love of God. When a child does something with his father as the final cause, he isn’t refusing to make the Good his final end, nor is he abandoning God. God has established the child’s father as a proper final cause.

  8. Hi, Matthew. Glad to see you’re stopping by!

    It is true that final causation is going to be treated in a more systematic and integrated way for Aquinas, but it isn’t exactly accurate to reduce God’s providential governance to final causation only. (This would be similar to the way Aristotle seemed to have conceived the motion of the super-lunar realm to run, but remember that Aristotle, though dealing with a prime (non-temporal) cause, isn’t thinking of providence or conservation like Aquinas is.)

    If you look through ST I.103-105, you’ll notice that St Thomas takes up questions about the governance of the world in conjunction with his discussion of divine conservation. There (in I.103.1) he argues that natural things are ordered to an end, and that inasmuch as these do not order themselves to an end (since they are not rational creatures) they are governed toward their ends by some reason (or rational being, i.e. God). He goes on to argue (in article 5) that all things are subject to divine governance, but that (article 6) not all things are immediately governed by God: “In government there are two things to be considered; the design of government, which is providence itself; and the execution of the design. As to the design of government, God governs all things immediately; whereas in its execution, He governs some things by means of others.”

    It’s also important to see the connection between providence, government and conservation. The first two articles of Q 104 establish that all creatures need to be kept in being (conserved) by God, but that God conserves persisting entities through mediate (secondary) causes, though in each case the efficacy of the secondary causes presupposes the efficacy of the principal cause (God’s will): “…a thing is said to preserve another ‘per se’ and directly, namely, when what is preserved depends on the preserver in such a way that it cannot exist without it. In this manner all creatures need to be preserved by God. For the being of every creature depends on God, so that not for a moment could it subsist, but would fall into nothingness were it not kept in being by the operation of the divine power” (article 1).

    And in I.105.5, Aquinas argues that God “works in every agent” so as to concur with rather than override secondary causes: “some have understood God to work in every agent in such a way that no created power has any effect in things, but that God alone is the ultimate cause of everything wrought [such as the Libertines and Edwards] … but this is impossible.” (Here I would recommend reading carefully through article 5 and looking at Freddoso’s “God’s General Concurrence with Secondary Causes: Why Conservation is not Enough.”)

    Now, divine conservation of this kind, which preserves creatures in existence, is a matter of efficient causation, not final causation. So if divine conservation, governance, and providence are bound up with one another, it cannot be that God’s governance of the created order is a matter of final causation only. And they are. Notice, for instance, that in I.22.3 (rep obj 4), as Aquinas defends his claim that the human will is also subject to God’s providence, he makes this claim: “from the fact that He does not restrain the wicked from the evil of sin, He is said to abandon them: not that He altogether withdraws His providence from them; otherwise they would return to nothing, if they were not preserved in existence by His providence.” The italicized bit emphasizes the link between conservation and providence (and thus government).

    This is not to say that final causation is not involved in God’s providence at all. We can see how it relates to efficient causality in God’s governance by attending to the distinction he draws in I.22.3 respondeo: “Two things belong to providence – namely, the type of the order of things foreordained towards an end [final]; and the execution of this order, which is called government [efficient]. As regards the first of these, God has immediate providence over everything, because He has in His intellect the types of everything, even the smallest; and whatsoever causes He assigns to certain effects, He gives them the power to produce those effects.”

    Here we have both the teleological ordering essential to providence, and also the execution of this order, which is a matter of efficient causation – involving both God as principle cause and natural causes as secondary causes. So the overall picture includes universal and particular providence, final and efficient causation, and principle and secondary causes:

    “We must say, however, that all things are subject to divine providence, not only in general, but even in their own individual selves … For since every agent acts for an end, the ordering of effects towards that end extends as far as the causality of the first agent extends … But the causality of God, who is the first agent, extends to all being, not only as to constituent principles of species, but also as to the individualizing principles … Since therefore, as the providence of God is nothing less than the type of the order of things towards an end, as we have said, it necessarily follows that all things … must likewise be subject to divine providence” (I.22.2 respondeo); but “God’s immediate provision over everything does not exclude the action of secondary causes; which are the executors of His order” (an efficient causal notion)” (article 3, rep obj 2).

    *Tom: I’ve got to take a break and make dinner — I’ll get round to at least the Edwards question asap. (“The last shall be first, so Matthew got to cut in line.)

  9. Tom,

    I still wonder, how would Edwards respond? Would he say, ‘yes, I suppose you’re right that Calvin and I agree on one level, but have a fundamental disagreement at a deeper level’? Or would he say ‘no, Calvin and I actually agree for this or that reason…’? I’m asking you to speculate, I suppose. Maybe that’s not fair.

    This isn’t unfair at all, and it really doesn’t require speculation. Edwards was a pretty terrific philosopher, and he had his head about him enough to know that he was simply disagreeing with Calvin about secondary causation. So, this really isn’t a hazy matter or an issue of interpretation. Edwards purposefully, methodically, and forcefully argues for precisely the conclusion that Calvin vociferously rejects – namely, that there are no secondary causes in nature, inasmuch as God’s active (and conserving) will rules out the operation of additional potential causes.

    The argument runs like this. First, Edwards rejects deism, the view that a creator God made the world but thereafter the world was self-sustaining or self-supporting. In keeping with tradition, he argues that the world and everything in it continually depends upon God’s sustaining will so as to make it exist.

    Now, how does conservation work? How exactly does God keep the world in existence after creating it? We need a theory.

    Edwards argues for the “continuous creation” theory of divine conservation. According to this theory, God conserves the world in existence by doing precisely the same thing He did when He created the world ex nihilo. In other words, there is no metaphysical difference (for Edwards) between God’s “creating” an entity and God’s “conserving” an entity. In both cases, God does exactly the same thing – namely, He brings that entity into existence out of nothing. The difference between creation and conservation is therefore conceptual, not real: we use the term ‘create’ to implicate that the thing God created did not exist before; and we use the word ‘conserve’ to indicate that God has already, previously introduced this object into existence. But what God does in creating and conserving is the same act of will.

    This view goes back quite a ways – Edwards didn’t make it up. But he gave powerful expression to some unique arguments for this view and he put it to an interesting use.

    In a nutshell, he argued this way: since everything depends immediately on God for its existence, what this means is that God creates the whole universe out of nothing, moment by moment. (Otherwise He isn’t really sustaining the world causally.) Notice what this means: if God is re-creating the entire universe instant by instant, that means that (a) at each instant of time, God brings a whole universe into existence, and it immediately falls out of existence again, only to be replaced, the very next instant, with a completely different universe that God creates out of nothing. It also means that (b) nothing that happens in the universe at one instant of time makes any difference (causally) to anything that happens in the “next” universe God creates at the very next instant of time. This is so, according to Edwards, because an object A can cause another object B only if A exists at the same time as B. But since A falls out of existence as soon as God creates it, and is then replaced with another different object immediately, that means that A doesn’t exist long enough to cause anything else to happen: it could not exist simultaneously with any effect occurring the next moment over.

    Think of it like this: imagine a film strip of the movie Ocean’s Twelve, say. On Frame 1 there is a stillframe of Brad Pitt; on Frame 2, the very next one over, there is a stillframe of Brad Pitt in a slightly different position. These frames go by so fast that we do not perceive a break in them; it seems like the same Brad Pitt all the way through, and it seems like what happens in Frame 1 causes the events in Frame 2 to happen. But this is an illusion.

    This is sort of like how the world works, according to Edwards. What looks like causation is not real causation between events, because God is causing everything. And what looks like the “same” object to us over time is not really the same object; God replaces everything with a near-identical replica, moment by moment, as a function of “continuously creating” the universe. Let me give an extended quotation from Edwards:

    That God does, by his immediate power, uphold every created substance in being, will be manifest, if we consider, that their present existence is a dependent existence, and therefore is an effect, and must have some cause: and the cause must be one of these two: either the antecedent existence of the same substance, or else the power of the Creator.

    Do you see how he sets up the argument? Everything in the world is dependent on something for its existence; this means their existence is an effect of some cause; the cause of any created object must either be something within it that causes it to continue existing (its antecedent existence) or the power of God. Now:

    But it can’t be the antecedent existence of the same substance. For instance, the existence of the body of the moon at this present moment, can’t be the effect of its existence at the last foregoing moment. For not only was what existed the last moment, no active cause, but wholly a passive thing; but this also is to be considered, that no cause can produce effects in a time and place in which itself is not. ‘Tis plain, nothing can exert itself, or operate, when and where it is not existing. But the moon’s past existence was neither where nor when its present existence is. In point of time, what is past entirely ceases, when present existence begins; otherwise it would not be past. The past moment is ceased and gone, when the present moment takes place; and does no more coexist with it, than does any other moment that had ceased twenty years ago … Therefore the existence of created substance, in each successive moment, must be the effect of the immediate agency, will, and power of God.

    So: since everything dependent requires a sustaining cause, and nothing can be causally responsible for its own continued existence given the “time constraints,” this means that God’s immediate will must be responsible for the existence of all objects and events through time:

    It will follow from what has been observed, that God’s upholding created substance, or causing its existence in each successive moment, is altogether equivalent to an immediate production out of nothing, at each moment, because its existence at this moment is not merely in part from God, but wholly from him, and not in any part, or degree, from its antecedent existence. For the supposing, that its antecedent existence concurs with God in efficiency, to produce some part of the effect, is attended with all the very same absurdities, which have been shown to attend the supposition of its producing it wholly.

    And finally, you can see how this argument generalizes to all forms of natural or secondary causation, resulting in the view that nothing causes anything to happen except God:

    Therefore the antecedent existence is nothing, as to any proper influence or assistance in the affair: and consequently God produces the effect as much from nothing, as if there had been nothing before. So that this effect differs not at all from the first creation, but only circumstantially; as in first creation there had been no such act and effect of God’s power before; whereas, his giving existence afterwards, follows preceding acts and effects of the same kind, in an established order.

    So, this is enough (I think) to show that Edwards knew exactly what he was arguing for and was doing it with his eyes open. What would he say to Calvin? Could they be reconciled? Only if either Calvin or Edwards dropped their views. Edwards embraces occasionalism and rules out concurrence; Calvin does the opposite, and equally as intentionally.

    Of course, the “payoff” for Edwards is that we get to explain original sin this way: you are not identical to Adam, but you can nevertheless be held guilty for what he did, just as you can be held guilty for what you did 5 minutes ago, even though you are not identical to the “you” who existed 5 minutes ago. Thus Edwards:

    …let us see how the consequences of these things is to my present purpose. If the existence of created substance, in each successive moment, be wholly the effect of God’s immediate power, in that moment, without any dependence on prior existence, as much as the first creation out of nothing, then what exists at this moment, by this power, is a new effect; and simply and absolutely considered, not the same with any past existence, though it be like it, and follows it according to a certain established method. And there is no identity of oneness in the case, but what depends on the arbitrary constitution of the Creator; who by his wise sovereign establishment so unites these successive new effects, that he treats them as one, by communicating to them like properties, relations, and circumstances; and so, leads us to regard and treat them as one.

    This is the result he’s looking for: God can likewise “treat us as one” with Adam, in the same way that he treats us as if we are one and the same person “we” were 5 minutes ago, although we really are not.

    I think Calvin would say we do not need to defend original sin this way, and would point to the consequences of occasionalism, as he did against the Libertines – e.g., God becomes responsible for evil, we are no longer free or responsible agents, etc.

    I will try to get to the Aquinas question soon, but I think I’m going to take a writing break for a bit.


  10. Dear Neal,

    Thank you for that (and do take a break — heck, don’t even get to my super huge question here if you don’t want to. It may need its own paper). It put your post on solid footing.

    I know that Edwards is widely respected, and his argument reveals great intelligence. But I’m left thinking, ‘this is crazy talk!’ I think this particularly because of the point you made, that it seems we cannot be held accountable for our guilty conduct if we are re-created each instant. If I’m a different T.B. at each moment (as if time were divisible into frames), then I don’t see how I carry the guilt of the T.B. who sinned five minutes ago. I guess this helps me understand the strength of the Edwards/Puritan view than we are replete with sin, and that all our best acts are nothing but guilt-giving sins.

    I wonder if Edwards noticed some tension between his philosophy and Scripture. In fact, I’m surprised to hear that his view of creation was so colored by a philosophy that is fairly removed from direct scriptural foundation.

    Peace in Christ,

  11. Tom,

    I hear you, and I have the same intuitive reaction.

    I think Edwards would say this: well, it may sound crazy to you, but I’m just taking what we know from Scripture and carrying it to its inevitable conclusions. That is, (1) God conserves the world and everything depends upon His will; (2) we are morally responsible for our actions. These are deliverances of Scripture. So, if (1) entails that we do not persist through time in the way we may have thought (prior to thinking through this carefully), then it must be that (2) is consistent with our failing to persist through time. This is so because both (1) and (2) are in Scripture; thus, they must be consistent with one another. But if they are consistent with one another, then anything they entail must likewise be consistent with one another. Hence, we can be held guilty for things that “we” did not do, because God “arbitrarily” decides to treat us “as if we were” the same person as the person who performed the bad deed. And look — that helps us understand why we’re responsible for what Adam did, too!

    All of this of course depends upon agreeing with Edwards about where the Scriptural data lead. And, naturally, where we think they lead will depend upon the philosophical template we’re looking at those data through. This should be starting to sound familiar: there’s always a lot more philosophy going on within theology than people generally recognize.

  12. Neal,

    I look forward to more on the philosophical templates in play with the various noteworthy Reformers — and perhaps their Catholic contemporaries and interlocutors. Maybe no Catholics paid Edwards any attention, and that’d be too bad.

    While discussing templates, I believe that it is important that we be able simultaneously to demonstrate whether the arguments are true and false. We can’t stop at attacking a template; I’m sure you agree. Would that be the ‘genetic fallacy’? Anyway, I don’t think you’ve made that attack, and am glad for your caution.

    Peace in Christ,

  13. Yes, it would be an instance of the genetic fallacy (a.k.a. fallacy of origins) to say that a proposition p is false simply because of the way in which p came to be believed. In our case, it would be both fallacious and wrongheaded to say that a theological position is wrong because it was derived or filled out philosophically, or because it depends in some way upon philosophical theories. Fallacious because it’s a case of the genetic fallacy; wrongheaded because there’s precious little in theology that isn’t “infected” with philosophy, even when people think they’re doing “pure exegesis.”

  14. Neal,
    Great exposition. Perhaps it would be a good Idea for a future study to look into the Trinitarian aspects of the Divine will, and predestination, and the human will and such. What I mean is that we know that God is both Transcendent and Immanent all at the same time, and that the roles the different persons play in the Trinity may shed light on how we could understand the will and actions of God.(e.g. The transcendent will of God we understand in relation to the Father, existing in the Father alone; the Immanent will we understand to be through the eternal Son; the Holy Spirit affecting and enacting everything according to the Immanent will of the Son, which is rooted in the Transcendental and eternal will of the Father, etc.) This may be a deeper study than can be delt with here though. Of course, these are in a large degree my own thoughts. I may be the only one who has ever thought of it this way before, but Im placing my bets that Im not. So maybe it would be worth while to look into these things.

    In Christ,
    Jared B

  15. Thanks, Jared. These are deep waters, but, Lord willing, there will be ample time to explore these kinds of issues in the days to come.

    Thanks for contributing,


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